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German History Journal

Wilhelmine Germany: Historical Interpretations*

The Montreal Review, January, 2010

The historians often think about Wilhelmine Germany through the lens of the great wars of the XX century, and the question on which they quarrel is was the pre-war German political, social and economic system responsible for both the outbreak of the First World War and the coming of the Nazis?



The Second Reich's politics (Imperial Germany from 1871 to 1918) can be generalized in two main points: demagogy at home, and menacing stand abroad. German nationalism from the end of XIX century and beginning of XX found its expression in boasting state propaganda, protectionist agrarian and industrial policy and creation of a big navy. None of these measures improved German national security.


Protectionist policy is a form of economic war. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the protectionism was among the main factors causing the economic calamities in Europe. While protecting some segments of German economy and certain producers, the agrarian politics of the Reich had generally bad effect on consumers and on economic sectors out of state concern. The creation of a great German navy was good for the big business and heavy industry, but in a world where international trade is restricted, the existence of such a navy had no other reason but military.

Britons were suspicious of German naval force - a big German navy could not be used only for trade; therefore, they concluded, its goal must be military, it would be a tool for expansion and war. The 1900s were an age of imperial competition, and the German neighbours, especially France, Britain, and Russia, had reasonable motives to feel embarrassed of the German actions. Yet, as A. J. P. Taylor argues 1, in the Bülow-Tirpitz era between 1898 and 1905, German politics was still contributing to general security in world. The Reich was occupied with plans for naval greatness that were incomparable with the old German ambitions for continental expansion in East, Russia had problems at home and in Far East and in Germany there were mixed feelings of sympathy to the Tzarist regime, Britain was trying to please Germans instead to intimidate them.

After the Germans had been diplomatically defeated in the First Moroccan crisis in 1906, the German "world policy" pushed the European powers France, Britain and Russia even closer. In 1907, an alliance bloc of hostile powers was encircling Germany. The character of the alliance system from the beginning of the twentieth century was very specific - its primary goal was militaristic and it was obliging the allied countries to support each other in case of foreign aggression. The alliances were defensive measures; they had a negative character. In addition to this, at this time, secret diplomacy played a great role in foreign policy and the European counties were torn by mutual suspicion and fear. No country was completely sure about the intentions of its adversaries, nor of its allies. The psychological environment of fear and suspicion naturally led to the conflict in 1914.

The character of the world politics in the beginning of the twentieth century, where every great power bears some responsibility for the existence of international tensions, created some agreement among the historians writing immediately after World War One that Germany was not the primary culprit for the war. Most postwar historians, among which Gerhard Ritter, Hans Rothfels, and Hans Herzfeld, were convinced that Germany has no special "war guilt" and that it was harshly treated by the winners at Versailles. They did not see credible connection between the character of German society and politics of Imperial Germany and the war escalation in 1914 that could lead to the conclusion that the Germans were responsible for the conflict. There were some solitary voices who appealed for a more social approach to pre-war German history, for example Torstein Veblen, but they received less attention.

After the Second World War, the historians continued to support the same narrative. According to the general understanding in the 1940s and 1950s, Germany had been stimulated to revenge, because of the injustices of Versailles treaty, the fear and imperial greed of France and Britain. The research of society and politics of Wilhelmine Germany was not leading to a conclusion that Imperial Germany actually bore a great deal of responsibility for both - First World War and the Nazis regime. The historians did not see the conservative structures of the Second Reich in the tissue of Weimar Republic. The imperial education, big business, judiciary system, the nationalistic propaganda, army officers - all of these were still alive in the 1920s.

In 1961, the historian Franz Fisher broke up the traditional interpretation that had been rehabilitating German political responsibilities for so many years. In "Germany's Aims in the First World War " he argued that Germany was not an innocent victim of the circumstances. His main arguments were: Germans wanted war and used the opportunity in 1914; the expansionist ambitions of the Keiser's Reich were very similar to Hitler's imperial plans; the sources of the German wish for expansion were not rooted in the specifics of its international position, but in its domestic social, political and economic environment. Fisher saw clear continuity between the politics of Kaiser Reich and Hitler's Germany.

Fisher's work has created a completely new school in German historiography. It insisted that the seeds of the German aggression in 1914 could be traced back to the 1860s and 1870s. Modern Germany was created and managed "from above"; it was an authoritarian state that passed its industrialization and modernization under the supervision of the imperial elite. Its authoritarian XIX century explains its totalitarian XX century.

In the 1970s, another German historian, Hans Ulrih-Wehler, synthesised Fisher's ideas and complimented the criticism of Kaiser Reich with the role of the national propaganda, coming from the milieu of industrialist, clerics, and generals. Their propaganda, according to Wehler, was successful because of the political immaturity of German people. The political immaturity was a natural result of Bismarck's anti-democratic policy.

Now Fisher-Wehler interpretation is the "neo-orthodoxy" in German historiography.


1 Taylor, A. J. P., Course of German History, The: A Survey of the Development of German History Since 1815 (Taylor & Francis, 2001)


Related articles:

The Origins of the Second World War

First World War and Versailles - The Lessons

The Peace that led to War


* This article doesn't pretend for historical accuracy. It is based on dilettante notes on German history readings.


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